David Cameron's Plan to Eliminate Encryption Kicks Off Debate

The political football that is the so-called “Snooper’s Charter” in the UK is continuing to bounce back and forth this week after Prime Minister David Cameron decried the use of encrypted communications on Monday, noting that communications that “can’t be read” by government should not be allowed.

But, it’s unlikely that the plea will go very far.

Much to the shock of the security community, human rights activists and members of the Labour Party and beyond, the PM made the case against the use of apps like WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage, which encrypt their communications end-to-end. He said that in light of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week, law enforcement should have recourse to track extremists using whatever information they can put at their disposal. He pointed out that letters and phone calls have always been available to lawful intercept in such cases, and that internet communications should be no different.

“In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications,” Cameron said. “The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.”

Cameron, along with MI5 head Andrew Parker, has thus called for Britain's Communications Data Bill, a.k.a. the Snooper’s Charter, to be back on the docket, which allows for the investigation of the content of any citizen’s communications to be accessed without a warrant.

Against this backdrop, the EU’s security agency has issued a report that came out at odds with that stance, reiterating that privacy is a “fundamental human right.” This is famously the standard attitude throughout Europe, and it’s the one that Deputy PM Nick Clegg has supported.

“The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then, in the next, advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens,” the Deputy Prime Minister said in a speech this week. “Let me be really clear, we have every right to invade the privacy of terrorists and those we think want to do us harm—but we should not equate that with invading the privacy of every single person in the UK. They are not the same thing.”

He added, “The Snoopers' Charter is not targeted. It's not proportionate. It's not harmless. It would be a new and dramatic shift in the relationship between the state and the individual.”

Unsurprisingly, a variety of detractors agree with that assessment and have come out about this, some with interesting arguments, including the Centre for Globalization Research. It noted that portions of Cameron’s base may not be very happy with the stance.

“Cameron’s anti-encryption agenda conform to that spirit of rampant, and ultimately futile intrusiveness,” it said. “They prove to be suggestions of an astoundingly counter-productive nature, undermining a constituency vital for his party: the corporate dimension. For a party that fancies The City of London and all that it does—hefty financial transfers, fat loans, the energy of the big wheeling and dealing—removing firm encryption settings will be an unwelcome development.”

And debates over the privacy dimensions aside, there’s a clear security ramification: In order to intercept encrypted content, a backdoor would need to be put in place, presumably with the cooperation of technology companies.

“There are enormous problems with this: there’s no backdoor that only lets good guys go through it,” pointed out author Cory Doctorow. “If your Whatsapp or Google Hangouts has a deliberately introduced flaw in it, then foreign spies, criminals, crooked police (like those who fed sensitive information to the tabloids who were implicated in the hacking scandal—and like the high-level police who secretly worked for organized crime for years), and criminals will eventually discover this vulnerability. They—and not just the security services— will be able to use it to intercept all of our communications.”

Overall, given the upcoming election, it’s unlikely that Cameron’s anti-privacy wishes will get very far without significant public debate—terrorist activity or not, the use of encrypted communications, especially post-Snowden, is a genie that’s been out of the lamp, and likely won’t want to go back in. 

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